Fossil fuel companies should be forced to “take back” the carbon dioxide emitted from their products, handing them direct responsibility for cleaning up the climate, a group of scientists has argued.
The principle that the producer of pollution should pay for its clean-up is established around the world, but has never been applied to the climate crisis.
Yet technology to capture and store carbon dioxide underground is advancing, and is now technically feasible, according to Myles Allen, a professor of geosystems science at the University of Oxford.
“The technology exists – what has always been lacking is effective policy,” he said. “The failure has been policy, not technology – we know how to do this.”
The companies that profit from extracting fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal producers around the world – should be paying for an equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide to be stored geologically as a condition of being allowed to operate, he argued.
Allen is a co-author, along with four other scientists from Oxford, the US and the Netherlands, of a paper published on Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters that sets out how such an “extended producer responsibility” could work.
Under a “carbon takeback obligation”, all fossil fuels extracted or imported into a nation or group of nations would be offset by storing underground an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that generated by that fuel. Phased in over time, it could be used to store 100% of emissions by 2050, to help the world reach net zero.
Unlike a carbon tax, which discourages the use of fossil fuels by making them more expensive, the authors of the paper argued that such a system would ensure the effect on the climate was neutralised, and the cost of doing so would be part of the cost of fossil fuel production.
Although carbon capture and storage technology is expensive at present, within a few decades it is likely to come down sharply in price, according to the paper.
This would enable the storage of carbon dioxide in the “geosphere” – underground – rather than the biosphere, in the form of forests and vegetation, which stores carbon but is under pressure as so much land is needed for growing food around the world.
“If you generate too much carbon dioxide, you are going to have to put it somewhere, and you can’t rely on the biosphere to ramp up, as you need the biosphere for food production. So it’s going to have to go back in the ground,” said Allen. “This is a focused policy that will deliver the outcomes we need.”
The group pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists, has made clear that limiting global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which is necessary to avoid the worst ravages of climate breakdown, is likely to require the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as the phasing out fossil fuels and the rapid deployment of renewable energy.
Allen’s previous attempt to turn the idea into policy failed in 2015, however, when the former chief of Shell, Lord Oxburgh, introduced an amendment to an energy bill in the House of Lords. Though it nominally had the support of government and opposition, the proposal fell owing to parliamentary procedures and was not revived.
Carbon takebacks could work alongside carbon border taxes, or carbon border adjustment mechanisms (CBAMs), by penalising or preventing imports from countries that do not impose some form of carbon reduction obligation on their industries.
Hugh Helferty, a retired corporate strategic research manager at ExxonMobil, and co-author of the paper, said the cost of carbon removal must be borne somehow if the 1.5C target were to be kept.
“Who pays?” he asked. “Should it be the taxpayer, or producer, or the producer and consumer together? It makes sense that the producer and user should pay, rather than the taxpayer. That puts the drive to reduce emissions in the right place.”
Several other scientists, who were not involved with the paper, applauded the idea.
Dr Hannah Chalmers, a reader in sustainable energy systems at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Introducing an extended producer responsibility for fossil fuels would be a gamechanger in successfully responding to the challenge of delivering affordable, low-carbon energy.
“Geological storage of carbon dioxide is likely to play an important role in reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
“Implementing a CTBO [carbon takeback obligation] in key regions would ensure that sufficient funding is available for scaling up geological storage of carbon dioxide at the right scale to meet global climate policy goals.
“The CTBO also ensures that the right organisations are responsible for financing deployment of geological storage of carbon dioxide.”
Paul Ekins, a professor of resources and environmental policy at University College London, said: “There is an urgent need for radical new CO2 emission reduction policies. [This proposal] provides a means to get built the substantial carbon capture and storage infrastructure that nearly all models say will be needed if the 1.5C target is to be met.
“The [UN climate] meetings need urgently to start discussing such measures before the target gets irrevocably out of reach.”